So whenever I go about hiring a new reporter (or any job at Snyder Communications), we always administer a spelling test. Sure, in the days of spell check and autocorrect it’s not as highly a prized skill as it once was – but it should be. Especially for a reporter. And especially if you’re out to disprove your boss’ theory that Norwich grads are the worst spellers (still working on that one).
While on this latest stretch of interviewing applicants, I’ve given out a few spelling tests in the last couple weeks, so the title of this weekend’s Sherburne Music Theater Society musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” certainly caught my eye.
Obviously, this hilarious stage show is far more entertaining than our 20-question test, but it’s Friday, and I’m reaching for a metaphor here. Humor me.
The SMTS show actually opened at the Palace Theater in Hamilton last night, but there are still two shows left – tonight and Saturday night at 8.
Nine and a half times out of 10 when I’m headed to see one of these local productions, I’ve either seen it a million times already, or I’ve prepared myself for what’s to come courtesy of Wikipedia or YouTube. Well, it’s been a busy week, folks. When I left the office Monday night, I barely had time to eat, much less Google the premise of this show.
Directed by Colleen Law-Tefft and starring an impressive roster of her Sherburne-Earlville students, I thought, how bad could it be? Turns out I’m actually glad I went in cold, not knowing what to expect.
Readers of this review, however, obviously don’t have this luxury, because I’m going to tell you all about it anyway. In hopes of convincing you to go, of course.
And go, you should. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a rollicking (and surprisingly lyrical) laugh-fest, telling the tale of six young contests vying for the title of the titular contest. Each of the spelling hopefuls is introduced through flashbacks, with their parents and family members played quickly by the other actors in brief but funny little sketches. Rona Lisa Peretti (Haley Muth) is the bubbly emcee of the local event, having won it herself 22 years earlier with “syzygy” (yes, I looked it up). Rona is assisted by the official word-giver, Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played to droll perfection by Ed Rigano. His “use it in a sentence” bits had me in stitches. Also on hand is poor Mitch Mahoney (Tom Lemery), who’s doing his community service as the Bee’s “comfort counselor” – handing out juice boxes and hugs to the defeated contestants.
The spellers themselves are a neurotic bunch of kids, each with enough baggage to pack a freight train. William Barfee (Craig Natoli) is generally disdainful of the others, perhaps because he’s overconfident of his supernatural spelling gift, “The Magic Foot.” Maisy French plays the youngest speller, hyper-exuberant Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who’s out to prove herself despite her age. Downtrodden Olive Ostrovsky’s (Caitlin Weinell) best friend is her trusty dictionary, probably because her parents are of the absentee variety. Chip Tolentino (Devin Miller) won the contest last year, but is stricken by a rush of adolescent hormones that makes it hard for him to continue. Heh. Then there’s space cadet Leaf Coneybear, played with charming goofiness by Alex Rodriguez, who doesn’t think he belongs there at all because he came in third at his regional competition. Good thing he’s got his own preternatural gift. And of course there’s the classic overachiever (and cheerleader), Marcy Park, played with ruthless perkiness by Emilee Smith. Little kids, they are, but mature themes weave through their conflicts and the jokes, making “Bee” a relatable tale for all audiences.
Often times, I laugh politely at these shows. Monday night, I’m pretty sure I guffawed a couple times. Luckily, I didn’t draw too much attention to myself because, I must warn you, there is audience participation involved in “Bee,” which is played to great effect. Though not, thank the theater gods, by me. Given the unpredictability of all that audience participation, I suspect a good deal of this show is improvised, which keeps the comedy fresh and fast-paced. And there’s music, too! While this show will probably never go down in the pantheon of great stage musicals, it’s the repartee and comedic timing employed by the SMTS cast that makes this show a must-see.
I know it’s Blues Fest weekend and all, but for those seeking a different kind of fare – or even a break from the mayhem of the fairgrounds, I’d highly recommend “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin).
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